We Want to Believe in Ghosts

ghost_stairsBy Joe LaGuardia

In a rare one-season return, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) are back to their old shananigans in The X Files.  The show presents audiences with mysteries old (the cigarette man is back) and new (technology has caught up with the times), all while affirming the show’s foundational mantra that the truth is out there.

X Files, with episodes entirely fictional but largely based on conspiracy theories, makes us want to believe– not necessarily the truth about monsters, but in that which is unseen, namely ghosts.

Ghosts have…er…haunted us for as long as humanity could write.  Every era has its own version of ghosts, whether fictional — Hamlet’s father in the opening Shakespearean play Hamlet comes to mind — to supposed fact, like those many spirits that haunt Georgia’s historic cities from Savannah to St. Simon’s Island.  As of 2013, more people believe in ghosts–roughly 45%–than regularly attend church.

A ghost or two even makes an appearance in the Bible: In 1 Samuel 28, an anxious and dispirited (pun intended) King Saul breaks his own laws by seeking a necromancer–the “witch of Endor”–in order to seek Samuel’s ghost for advice.

Calling Samuel from the dead, the witch raises the prophet from the below the earth and provides an omen to the king: “The Lord has turned from you and…has torn the kingdom from your hand” (v. 16, 17).

This story, as a part of scripture and taken literally for years, presents a conundrum for Christians who tell their children that ghosts are not real and that eternal life is something that results only from believing in Christ (Jesus was born 1,000 years after Saul’s reign).

As a pastor, I have to keep an open mind.  When someone tells me of a personal experience that includes the Holy Spirit–say a suspicion or a inkling–I admit that the Bible (Jesus, in fact) tells us very clearly that the Spirit “blows where it pleases” and empowers God’s people to be on mission.

Yet, there are many times when I ask questions of people who wonder whether they’ve seen or heard ghosts: If an experience has nothing to do with God’s mission or godly motives, I wonder if the person is correct in their interpretation of something they experienced, saw, or heard.  I still don’t know what to do about Saul’s run-in with Samuel’s ghost.

Science is close to unlocking the neurology and psychology that explains ghost sightings and the effects of apparitions.  Researchers in Switzerland, for instance, devised a lab experiment creating the effects of ghost phenomena.  Subjects claim to have sensed none other than a “ghost” as a result of the experiment.

Other scientists have concluded that people’s experiences are due to mechanical or biological factors, such as infrasound or sleep deprivation.

Unfortunately, science has yet to explain many other things, like miracles, religious and spiritual experiences, and, in our community, the power and presence of the “Holy Ghost.”  Exorcisms are still a norm in countries where science is not as prevalent.

It stands to reason that if science cannot unlock these secrets, people still have grounds to believe in other mysteries as well.

When my children were young, I told them ghost stories so they can learn how to discern fact from fiction and objectify their fears.  “Ghosts” are everywhere!  Flip-Flop-Flappy Jack is an old pirate who lives in our backyard and haunts us when he’s in the mood for pizza, and ghosts in our church sanctuary always provide a good scare every now and then.

My children know full well, however, that these apparitions are but fictitious “games” that help us get in touch with our deepest fears.  The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is someone very real–and they’ve learned to tell the difference between the two.  No matter how much fun they have, my kids, like the rest of us, will always want to believe.

Ghosts will always haunt us with questions about their existence in this world and in the next, so if you want to play it safe: Believe in the Holy Ghost, and be suspicious of all others.

Christians create sacred spaces wherever they go!

CoffeeBy Joe LaGuardia

Every Monday, a group of us from Trinity Baptist Church gather at a local coffee shop to fellowship and talk about whatever is on our minds.

Topics range from politics to hobbies, travel excursions to child-rearing.  On any given week, there can be as few as four people or as many as a dozen who attend.

We had a big turnout last week.  We had visitors from the community.  My wife and children–freed from the burdens of school to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.–were in attendance.  It took about three tables to fit everyone.

I rallied the group and took a picture for our Facebook page.  We laughed.  We told stories.  We were captivated by some folks who told us eyewitness accounts of the Civil Rights movement and Dr. King’s visit to Southern Seminary in 1961 when several of our parishioners were students there.

Most of all, I was captivated by the idea that we were being the church right there around that table.  (And, yes, there were twelve of us that day.)

It was long ago that we at Trinity changed our tune about what Christ’s Body is all about.  Usually, when people refer to “church,” they refer to a building or a place in which formal worship takes place.

Over the years, we learned that the church is made up, not of bricks and mortar, but of the people of God.  Where “two or more are gathered” in Jesus’ name, we are being the church.  And when we leave a physical building, we therefore bring church wherever we go.

In a conference I attended recently, someone stated that there are two ingredients that make a good church: a sense of transcendence and an environment that inspires a sense of belonging.

For thousands of years, church architecture and music have been the primary catalysts for providing transcendence.  Long-term relationships in the pews and pulpit have added to a congregation’s sense of belonging.

The only problem churches face now is that people no longer require a traditional church building to experience those two ingredients.  Walk into any coffee shop, mall, or movie theater, and you will find architecture, music, and abundant relationships that fulfill people’s needs for transcendence and belonging.

Many churches have to compete; and, in some cases, churches lose the battle and close.

The life and ministry of Christ as told in the New Testament reminds us that we don’t need buildings to have a relationship with God or with others in a sacred space in which the Holy Spirit guides God’s people.  Jesus was constantly on the move, and his only church consisted of crowds, mountain sides, boats, and campfires.

Yet, Jesus did not neglect the buildings that were important in a life of faith–Jesus went to temple for his annual sacrifices; he went for his Bar Mitzvah (Luke 2:42); he went to synagogue to commune, pray, and teach (Luke 4:15).

But he also knew that God was larger than any one of those edifices.

Don’t hear me wrong, dear reader.  I love the institutional church.  I love church buildings.  In fact, I grieve over the fact that we spend more money on erecting sports arenas than we do on building more cathedrals, and that many a church has lost a sense of grandeur when it comes to “God’s house.”

Yet, we have to keep things in perspective: Jesus used places as a means to an end.  He taught and discipled in one place, only to send those very disciples out to create sacred spaces in their local communities.

Church buildings are still a means to an end: They are places to gather and celebrate what God is doing in the world.  They also serve as hubs to equip disciples for ministry.  They are launching pads for ambassadors of the good news of the Gospel.

So it is with our little coffee group every week.  The routine is the same: Worship on Sunday; coffee group on Monday.  And both are church to me.  They are sacred spaces that carve out sacred times for the people of God to meet with one another–and with God–in ever creative and vibrant ways.

Be an example of Christ-like love, “for the good of all”

800px-Writing_a_letter

By Joe LaGuardia

You never know who is watching you and what kind of impact you may have on people.

I learned this the hard way when I was a rookie youth pastor in college.  I, ever the introvert, got to know the kids in my youth group, planned events, and taught Bible studies.

When I left church at the end of the day, however, I thought that my “job” as a youth pastor was over.  I’d go out to eat with my wife or catch a movie.  I was not cognizant of those around me, and I thought that no one was paying attention.

Every now and then I’d hear an adult at the church tell me that his or her child saw me out and about.  I was not doing anything immoral, but the children, whether I liked it or not, were watching me.  I had to start paying more attention and set an example.

The apostle Paul was always mindful of the influence he had on others.  As a rabbi, he was a professional mentor and teacher.  There was never a time he wasn’t teaching.  And he, like other rabbis at the time, were commissioned to be a public, moral witness for the entire community.

This ethic carried well into his conversion to Christianity.  In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul wrote that all Christians–preachers or not–must set an example for the rest of the world: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right…Whenever you have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all” (Galatians 6:9, 10).

I recently read a letter that a gentleman wrote to his good friend’s wife before she passed away from cancer.  The gentleman, whom I will call Blake, wrote that Kelly (also not her real name) made a positive, lasting impact on her husband.  In fact, over the years, she had changed her husband for the better.

The letter encouraged Kelly.  It brought comfort.  It also affirmed Kelly’s hard work in helping her husband become a more compassionate, caring individual.

“You are a model for us all of the courage that comes from love and respect expressed in a godly way between two people,” Blake wrote.

“I am grateful for our friendship and for your [ability to] unlock real joy and real love from my friend’s heart.”

When Kelly’s husband, now my good friend, shared this letter with me, it became clear just how much Kelly influenced his faith and life.  She did not “grow weary,” but made it her mission to support him and others whom she knew and loved.

He told me, “Joe, Kelly never forced her values or beliefs on anyone.  She never imposed her opinions.  She only lived how she believed Christ wanted her to live.  She was my angel.”

That resonated deep with me.  You see, no matter how you live, where you live, or what you do for a living, you can choose to be either a positive or a negative influence on others.  Christians, especially, are called to be compassionate, meek, and kind.

We are all called to create a positive atmosphere in which others can grow and flourish.

Consider being an influence by practicing what Paul called the “fruits of the spirit,” found also in Galatians (5:22-23): “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

If we are eager to do “what is right” and to “work for the good of all” like Kelly did for her husband, then we too may make a lasting difference in people who need to unlock “real joy and real love” in their lives.